Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Audacity of Hope

No, this is not about the book by Barack Obama, the Democrats nominee for the coming US Election; nor is it about the “epic achievement”, in the words of Mark Spitz, of Michael Phelps' 8 for 8 gold medal haul in the 29th Olympiads, the man from the Aquarius.

It's supposed to be about winning the maiden Gold Medal in the more than a century-old annals of the modern Olympics, in the person of Lee Chong Wei (CW), the pretender from Malaysia to the Olympics Crown in the man singles game of Badminton.

Granted he was to face a formidable foe, nicknamed the Super Dan, Lin Dan of China. What with 1.3 Billion people behind him providing the home court advantage. But, as they say, anything can happen in sports ...

I read that the final was to be held at 8.48pm today, local time in China. And that would be 8.48am here in US. I guess the timing of the final, sporting two 8s, is no mere coincidence.

Anyway, I surfed through the four TV channels here that cover the Olympics: NBC, Telemundo, USA, and MSNBC, and found that none carried the Badminton final live. That's not surprising, considering that Badminton is viewed largely an oriental sport, though US did send a Badminton contingent for the Games (The Google image to the right is one of many daily varied images put up by the Google people, one for each game. This one is for badminton).

So, for the first time, I looked for a live streaming video, and found it in the NBC Olympics website (where the image of CW to the right is taken from as a screen shot). It was already 12-5 in the first set, in Lin's favor. And Lin was leading all the way, helped no doubt by the uncharacteristic error-prone way of CW who seemed to spray the shuttlecork all over the place except in the court, yielding easy points for his opponent. To CW's credit, he did display flashes of brilliance that has earned him the #2 rank in the world, but that was too sporadic.

Perhaps the pressure got to CW, which I thought it would have affected Lin more, him having to shoulder the expectations of 1.3 Billion people. But Lin thrived on the incessant crescendo of JiaYou, JiaYou (literally, adding fuel, the Chinese equivalent of rallying support) of the partisan crowd, displaying all-court craft and extreme confidence.

The first game was soon over with a score of 21-12, going to Lin. The second set was more of the same, Lin raced to a 6-0 start, and never relinquished the lead. It was agonizing watching one's countryman under-performing for I know CW is capable of putting up a tougher fight, if not winning.

Badminton, for a long time, has been the only avenue to fame for Malaysian sports, starting in the 1950s (then Malaya). Later, Malaysia had to play second fiddle to Indonesia, and more recently, China, but have always maintained a respectable niche in Stanley's Cup, the world cup of Badminton, and All-England, the Grand prix of individual badminton honor. Then bowling, and later, Squash were added to the rather narrow field of Malaysian prowess in world sports. But Badminton has always remained our greatest hope, as testified by the two Olympics medals won by Malaysia so far, one silver and one bronze, and as you guessed it, both in Badminton.

So daring to hope and realizing that hope are separated by a huge chasm in reality, and to bridge that chasm will take much more than determination. But the important thing is to sustain that hope, to learn from the mistakes, and to take concrete steps toward improvement.

So let's keep our eyes on the 30th Olympiads to be held at London in 2012.

Friday, August 08, 2008

The Greatest Show on Earth: Beijing Welcomes You

Aug 8, 2008 is an auspicious day, by Chinese numerology. So it's no wonder that the day has been chosen as one that would herald the opening of the 29th Olympics. The organizers even went one step further, selecting the start time as 8:08 pm (Beijing local time), an instant that would only recur in the next 100 years. It's the very first time that China is hosting the premier game, the world stage for athletes, the epitome of sporting par excellence.

You can always count on the Google people to come out with a topical search logo (top) that is appropriate for the occasion of the day, this time featuring the four fuwas (literally translated as blessed dolls/kids) holding each corner of the Olympics flag and the fifth, leading with the torch. The five fuwas, the mascots, are arrayed on the bottom image taken from here, representing, from left to right, the fish (ocean), the panda (forest), the Olympic torch, the Tibetan antelope (Earth), and the swallow (Sky/Space). Each is given a double-syllabic Chinese name that is repeated, an endearing appelation for children. Phonetically, the five names (a character from each since the two characters are repeating), when enunciated in the same sequence, translates to Beijing Welcomes You as calligraphically represented by Wify below.

Not sure whether there would be live telecast of the Opening Ceremony, I decided to stay home in the morning just so I wouldn't miss what has been billed as the greatest show on earth, live from Beijing. I knew this would be a long shot since the published schedule of the NBC's TV's coverage of the 29th Olympics clearly indicates that the time of coverage would start at 8.00pm today.

When Wify phoned home later in the morning, her folks were watching the live telecast in Malaysia. Why we in US are not able to watch the opening live, despite her distinct technological advantage, is just beyond my comprehension. Proximity issue? Timing issue? Contractual obligations?

Anyway, instead, we watched some of the pre-show highlights that the NBC Today's staff had in store for US viewers. One of the slots dealt with Chinese etiquette, the social norms that govern the daily lives of Chinese people, steeped in tradition and one that outsiders may view as pandering to superstitious beliefs rather than grounded on rational thinking. It has to do with numbers where the counterpart to the unlucky number 13 in the western society is 4, which is phonetically somewhat akin to “death”. So having a number 4 in a car's number plate or the number of a house is downright unpopular among Chinese owners.

On the other hand, the preferred number is eight, phonetically allied with “making money”. Hence the Chinese fetish for this seemingly symmetrical and endless (as in looped) numerological entity, as amply demonstrated above in the choice of the date and time for the opening ceremony.

This phonetic likeness also plays a role in gift giving, or rather what not to select as gift. It's perhaps logical to think that a clock would make a nice house-warming gift, what with its utilitarian value. But this is taboo in Chinese society as, you guessed it, the Chinese word for clock sounds every bit like “the end”, as in coming to the end of life in this world. Even umbrellas are not appreciated since they signal “to open up” or something akin to washing dirty linens in the open. This, I would have to admit, I'm not so familiar with.

Then there are other negative symbolisms as well, all having to do with the notion of death, a taboo subject that is not welcome at all in any conversation involving the Chinese. One such example is in relation to the proper place to leave a pair of chopsticks in the vicinity of a filled rice bowl. Sticking them upright into the rice is tantamount to wishing death since that would resemble incense sticks staked in a pot that is a common sight in any funeral setting and one for remembering the dead. The best is to leave them on the table, by the side of the bowl. For momentarily stepping aside from eating, it might be OK to put them horizontally on top of the bowl (but I would like to be corrected if I erred).

Even gift wrapping is a sensitive issue, the prudent thing to do being to avoid white color. Traditionally, in Chinese tradition, white symbolizes death or the departed. Examples are that monetary gifts of condolences for bereavement are termed “white gold” while a recently widowed lady often spots a white lily on her head.

Ann Curry, Matt Lauer and Meredith Viera of the Today's cast agonizing over the proper choices with regard to gift bearing, the placement of chop sticks, and gift wrapping, the three clusters on the table arranged from left to right. (Screen shot of the local NBC station in the Tampa area, Channel 7, Today's show)

Ann and Meredith listening to the featured Chinese host explaining the Chinese foods that constitute a Chinese breakfast. The third cluster from the left features fried flour sticks that were a staple breakfast item for me during my younger days back home simply because the vendor was our neighbor. So you can say I practically grew up with this simple Chinese food, without realizing the historical significance behind the mere action of frying the sticks, until much later. Suffice to say that the frying is a symbolic punitive action (wallowed in hot oil) meted out against a historical despicable chinese official of the court who had betrayed a loyal general back in the Sung Dynasty, Ye Fei. (Screen shot of the local NBC station in the Tampa area, Channel 7, Today's show)

Then there is the table manner. Most people would think that it's commendable to finish all the food on a plate, leaving a clean slate behind so to speak, no wastage. There are even eateries here in US serving buffets that charge the customers for unfinished food.

However, if you were a guest in a Chinese home, it's considered rude or uncultured to do just that. Instead, social etiquette demands that you leave some behind, sending a message to the host that you have had enough of the sumptuous treat, and not that you have not been given enough to savor.

That, in a nutshell, is what westerners should watch out for lest the Chinese sensitivity be ruffled. Now settle in for the Games of Olympic proportion that would soon unfold.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

A Tale of Two Foxes

The Dark Knight has been making all manners of records at the box office since it made its debut two weekends ago. At the rate it's going, it's projected that it would smash the record of the highest grossed movies of all time, one that has been held by Titantic for more than ten years.

Its popularity also means that watching it has become a dicey proposition, what with the current weather pattern in Tampa now that is reeked with daily afternoon showers. Our first two attempts were derailed by untimely downpour. Honestly, I wasn't sold on the movie prior to watching it, despite the glowing reviews splashing across the papers and Internet, and by word of mouth, especially one from CY, who said that she plans to watch it again, this time on IMAX.

Part of my less than salutary view of the movie was the makeup of the Joker seen in the movie trailer, which did not make a favorable impression on me. My view then was Jack Nicholson would not be dislodged by the late Heath Ledger as my favorite Joker.

On the other hand, I have been a X-files fan, not die-hard, but one who would like to see Mulder and Scully going beyond being mere good friends, just for old time sake.

The family was planning to watch The Dark Knight on IMAX at Channelside last weekend. But the afternoon deluge (though by screen time it had dwindled to a slight drizzle) coupled with my lackadaisical attitude toward the movie put paid to that venture and I was able to divert them to watch I Want to Believe at MUVICO that's closer to home, even though right up to the time at the ticket booth these other dissenting members of my entourage were still undecided whether we were actually going to watch the X-files.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed the wise cracks from Mulder and Scully's ability to rattle off medical terms with no loss of fluidity and fluency despite the intervening years. And more. This time though, the threats were entirely terrestrial in origin but perpetrated by earthly aliens, a term reserved for anybody who is from outside US in the parlance of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. I shall skimp on the more part but let's just say I declared it to be the best movie in my list, thus far. My family members, though, have their reservations.

So after two abortive attempts, we made it to the Channelside way ahead of time: about 45 min before the scheduled screening time of 3pm. We joined the meandering queue at 2.20pm, a scene not unlike the waiting line in DisneyWorld, Orlando, except here they were more expectant adults than wide-eyed kids. To a collective sigh of relief from the waiting crowd, the door opened at 2.40pm, and the patrons started filing into the cinema, its interior seemingly dwarfed by the 8-storey high screen.

Because we made the right decision to appear well ahead of time, we were able to secure good and contiguous seats (second row from the back). It was a packed hall, and those who came late, especially in groups, were forced to split up or sat on the very first row (I can't imagine how one could actually enjoy the movie from that proximally disadvantaged seating location by having to swivel the head not only from side to side but to raise and to lower it continuously in order to get a full view of the action.) CE said she saw a party of late-comers comprising some kids in tow leaving the hall after making a brief survey upon entering, presumably to ask for a refund or exchange the tickets for a later show.

There was only one trailer shown, presumably not many movies are made with IMAX screening in mind. So for those who are used to seeing six or seven trailers being shown at a time, like Wify, they might not have realized that the feature presentation has actually started.

Anyway, the movie started with a group of masked men executing a bank robbery, and I was instantly taken in by the panoramic view seemingly giving it the depth dimension, and the rhythmic accompaniment of the background music.

When Batman was surveying the cityscape of skyscrapers in a night scene from the top of the Sears Tower (I learned later that most of the scenes were shot in Chicago), the acrophobic reaction elicited from the audience, at least in my case, was quite real. There was much explosion, but the carnage was implied rather than sensationally exhibited. The closest the movie got to something bordering on the macabre was the splitting of the mouths of unsuspecting victims by a small knife wielded by the Joker, who had a fetish for knives and made a case for using them as opposed to guns in the movie the details of which now escape me. He also made similar analogies for schemers, and rule followers, both of whom he was not, and human nature when stripped down to the basest elements: each man for himself.

I was pleasantly surprised by the sterling performance by Heath Ledger as the Joker, especially the way he swiveled his tongue ostensibly while talking, augmenting the maniac dimension of this dark character.

Oh yeah, there were moments of levity too, such as when the joker uttered a familiar line from Jerry Maguire (1996) that made me burst into spontaneous laughter, along with others as well.

There were some spontaneous applause from the audience in the course of the movie, the loudest of which was at the end from a patently appreciative audience for a cinematic experience well-delivered. By the time I stepped out of the cinema, the X-files' reign at the top of my movie list has been rendered a really short one, a week to be exact. Now the Dark Knight stays on top, a feat no doubt partially enabled by the IMAX experience. But so was the plot, the underlying human interest angle, the performance of the cast, etc. All conspire to make a believer of the movie's appeal out of an erstwhile cynical me.

There may be a teeny weeny bit of giveaway, aka plot spoiler, in the next paragraph, so please be forewarned.

To most, obviously the Dark Knight refers to Batman, in dark suit, and being nocturnal. But I have a different take, prompted by the white knight, Harvey Dent, the D.A. played by Aaron Eckhart. The “white” as used here refers to his open identity as opposed to the concealed, or dark, identity of Batman. In the movie, Dent's dark side was successfully unleashed by the Joker, the master manipulator of human emotions, thus earning Dent the moniker, the Dark Knight, in my reckoning.

Supposedly Dent was chosen to be the Joker's target because he was the strongest, over Batman and the police chief Gordon played by Gary Oldman. Eventually by saving the day for everyone and by taking the fall for the dastardly acts of the changed Dent, Batman turned out to be the strongest for he is strong to live long enough to become the villain so that people like Dent would die as a hero.

As for the tale of the two foxes, the fox in the X-files is self-explanatory while the fox in the Dark Knight is Lucius Fox played by Morgan Freeman.